By Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer
For the 16 Days of Action on Gender Violence, I’m thinking about the insidious impact of business models on social services, particularly for women.
You may have noticed of late a spate of, “new”, “innovative”, and “progressive” inventions that are coming out by using the term “social” to link the public and private entrepreneurial fields. “Social” is the prefix that makes business right! Social is the new “sexy”.
The idea goes like this: since hegemonic conservative neo-liberal ideology espouses the superiority of a corporate or business model for everything that was formerly supported by the people’s money (i.e. a social democracy’s yearly fiscal budget, which provided for social services delivered by not- for-profit agencies like rape crisis centres, women’s centres, community centres etc.), we are now being told to either get on board with business models or we will be failing to be responsible, credible, and responsive to our community’s needs. Read: austerity measures in the form budget cuts for social services are on their way!
The idea then suggests that: if we can make money instead of take money we could fulfill the requirement for success! In fact, the federal government has officially proclaimed that:
“…social and economic challenges, such as homelessness, youth crime, chronic poverty, skills shortages, and persistent unemployment, continue to exist in Canada despite the various initiatives taken to address them by all levels of government, community organizations and foundations. New thinking, new methods, new partnerships and new approaches are needed if we are to continue to make progress.”
Here are some of the “social finance instruments” that would purportedly allow for innovation and involvement of both the public and private sectors (i.e. business, corporations, foundations, etc.):
- Social enterprise
- Social entrepreneur
- Social Purchasing
- Social Purpose Real estate
- Social Capital
- Social Investing
- Social Financing
- Social Investment Fund
- Social Impact Bond
These cleverly branded concepts are closer to capitalist business schemes, designed to ensure profit as an outcome, whilst marketing them as making lasting social change. As in the case of social impact bonds, the community agencies would only get paid if they could prove positive social impacts or social change. This is called a Pay for Performance agreement. The investors would get 100% of their investment back and then some!
These concepts ignore the problems that this very model (and accompanying ideology) have caused in the first place. What systems are responsible for keeping people in poverty, maintaining homelessness, and ensuring only a fraction of the population has access to highly skilled jobs? Why blame social services agencies for the failure to operate within a system that is not designed to promote their success? Instead of challenging the neoliberal ideologies behind corporate or business models in order to alleviate poverty and violence, companies with financial (not social justice) bottom lines are being trusted to come up with solutions and support much-needed social change despite an absence of experience, accountability, transparency, or reporting to public stakeholders. We would never imagine asking a business to operate as a non-profit, so why are we asking non-profits to operate as businesses against the tenets upon which they operate?
So not only are these funding approaches actually a backdoor into making profits, they are doing so under the guise of supporting not-for-profit work.
Well I’m usually pretty cynical when it comes time to measure social change as I sit here day in day out seeing and understanding the impacts of sexualized violence. But when I take a step back and think about the changes in our society for women in the past 40 years I know for sure that it’s not because of a business model but because feminist work, as the catalyst for social change, was funded, i.e. supported by all levels of government. And social change takes time!
We have continued agitating for recognition and support in addressing violence against women and girls. We had the Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry reject Aboriginal Women and their allies’ calls for full participation in the process saying that it was just too expensive. We did not see any businesses or corporations speaking up in our defense as allies, nor did they offer to support us directly. Why would they do so now? Whose goals and values do we need to consider? The business and corporate bottom line? Or is it the goals of a democratic society that values women enough to support our aspirations of a society free from violence? How will these new finance instruments challenge discriminatory policies? How will these new social finance instruments allow for structural and institutional changes? We need to ask these questions because it is scary to think that we will keep on paying for Band-Aid solutions plus interest!
There is no one quick and cheap/new and innovative idea that works to address pressing and unmet needs. What is takes is sustained government support for all kinds of social change based on social democratic values that are funded directly from our tax dollars. Let’s prioritize spending that puts people first. No rape crisis centre in Canada should have to open a business in order to keep its doors open to serve women who have been sexually assaulted. Women and children should be a priority in Canada and not a “business opportunity” for Canada.
Let’s question all the ‘social’ prefixes that seek to distract and obfuscate the fact that social change is constant and positive only if it remains a fully supported national endeavor funded fully by all Canadians as an outcome of our hard work.